Arkansas Candidates Talk Tariffs, Immigration Before Delta Group

Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaking Thursday at the Greater Delta Region conference at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress and Governor offered differing views on President Trump’s tariffs, immigration and other issues during appearances Thursday before the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus.

The event brought rural advocates from across the region to the Clinton Library in Little Rock. Participating were Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill and his opponent, state Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock; Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford and his Democratic opponent, Chintan Desai; and Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his Democratic opponent, Jared Henderson.

U.S. Rep. French Hill
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Hill said he supports the Trump administration’s efforts to reset trade relations with China. He said China has stolen intellectual property, blocked American businesses, and dumped steel and aluminum. However, the United States should work with the European Union, Mexico and Canada to address these issues. He also said he supports the reset of trade relations with Canada and Mexico but doesn’t support across-the-board steel and aluminum tariffs on those countries.

“We need a more sophisticated sequence of the approach, although I agree that (Trump’s) reset, his goals are correct, and they’re about two decades – they should have been handled in the Bush and the Obama years, and they weren’t,” he said.

2nd District Democratic candidate Clarke Tucker
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Tucker agreed with some of Trump’s goals but said the methods have been wrong, calling it “tariffs by tweet” and saying the trade war has hurt the agriculture industry in Arkansas.

Crawford expressed strong support for the trade war, calling China a “belligerent economic foe” that is steadily increasing its military strength. He said China lies, cheats and puts itself in a position to steal U.S. proprietary information, all while enjoying treatment as a developing country. Moreover, it’s been dumping inferior products into American markets.

“Are we starting a trade war? No. We’ve been in a trade war for 20 years plus,” he said.

Desai said he has opposed the trade war from the beginning, saying trade wars “create a ton of uncertainty,” and this one is hurting farmers while consumer prices are increasing. He said the country should be negotiating from a position of strength by working with allies.

Hutchinson said the trade war with China affects consumers and manufacturers and that he had communicated to President Trump that it hurts Arkansas. He said the trade deficit with China needs to be reduced, but he is “pushing for zero tariffs.”

He recalled an embargo on the Soviet Union by the Carter administration where he said, “The only ones that were hurt by that was us and our farmers here.”

Hill and Tucker disagreed about trade policy toward Cuba. Tucker supports lifting the embargo, explaining that 50 years of enforcing it hasn’t led to a change in policy. Hill said the Cuban government could pay for Arkansas rice in cash now but instead is using its resources to interfere in Venezuela and Central America. He said he wants to be constructive regarding Cuba, but since relations were loosened under President Obama, more Cubans have been thrown into prisons, while American diplomatic staff in that country have been struck by an unexplained illness.

“We must look at the big picture here, and the regime in Cuba is all about the regime,” he said.

Asked about immigration policy, Tucker said the border should be secured, but a wall isn’t necessary. He called for providing a path to citizenship for the so-called “Dreamers,” who are illegal immigrants brought to America as children.

“They are just as American as you and me, in my opinion,” he said.

Hill said the immigration system is broken for both the Dreamers and what he called “legal dreamers” – young people living in America as the children of foreigners on work visas who can’t work and face deportation at age 21. He said military personnel being sent to the border by President Trump won’t be armed and will help buttress undermanned border patrol agents.

Crawford said the threat posed by drug cartels on the Southern border is real and affects Arkansas, as evidenced by the recent drug arrests of 1,260 people. He said a pathway to citizenship already exists.

“I’m for building the wall, but I’m for putting doors in the wall to allow people to come in who are seeking opportunity,” he said.

Desai said the wall won’t work, and law enforcement agencies shouldn’t be going after individuals who haven’t committed violent crimes. He said he is the son of immigrants from India who waited 10 years to become naturalized citizens.

“I’m the proud son of immigrants, and I think the story that my parents have, my own story, is the case for how immigration has worked,” he said.

Hill touted Republican tax and economic policies, saying the tax cut passed in December has contributed to a growing economy where wages are rising and unemployment is falling.

Tucker stopped short of calling for repeal, saying he supports elements of the law such as the doubling of the child care tax credit. However, he said he was concerned about the law’s effect on the increasing federal budget deficit.

“We’re giving away trillions of dollars to people who already have billions at the same time we’re cutting support for people who are trying to eat on an average of $4 a day,” he said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Tucker criticized Hill’s vote for the American Health Care Act, the unsuccessful Republican bill meant to replace Obamacare, which he said would have removed the protection that people with pre-existing conditions can’t be charged more than others.

Hill said the AHCA would have protected people with pre-existing conditions who maintained continuous coverage. Those who dropped continuous coverage could pay higher rates over a 12-month period but then would return to the cheaper preferred rate.

Crawford said the Affordable Care Act was unaffordable from the beginning, hasn’t addressed rising drug costs, and gave an anti-trust exemption to insurance companies. Therefore, he said, companies are consolidating. He specifically criticized the planned merger between CVS Caremark and Aetna and said small-town pharmacies are being forced out of business.

Desai said he supports increasing access to Medicare for all citizens.

ON THE GOVERNOR’S FRONT
Among the topics discussed by the gubernatorial candidates was the work requirement in Arkansas Works, the state program that purchases private insurance for lower-income Arkansans.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Hutchinson defended the requirement that individuals work 80 hours a month or engage in education, training or community service activities. He said some of those who have left the program as a result may have done so because their spouse has obtained employment or because they have moved out of state. The state should not continue to pay for their insurance premiums, he said.

Henderson criticized the work requirement, saying until recently it’s really been a requirement that people use the internet. He said people with health insurance are more likely to work.

Hutchinson has proposed raising minimum teacher salaries from $31,800 to $36,000, which would make Arkansas the state with the highest in the region in four years. He said the state would have to provide additional funding to help some of the 170 schools affected by the higher minimum. Henderson said the state should try to be a national leader. Earlier in the campaign, he proposed making Arkansas teachers the highest paid nationally, adjusted for the cost of living.

Democratic candidate for Governor Jared Henderson
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Henderson said the state needs to think more strategically about how to improve the economy of the Delta based on its strengths.

“If we stepped back and said, ‘What do we have the natural gifts to be great at in 20 years?’ we could start building to those things now and lay the foundation for not just new jobs and companies, but new industries,” he said.